THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

15 June ~ If you think about it, it came down to one goal. A good goal too. When Stephen Hunt smacked in what would be in any other game a consolation for Wolves against Blackburn three minutes from the end of the season, everything changed. What would have been one of Birmingham City's best ever seasons took yet another turn, as Alex McLeish promptly sent everything but the ball into the Tottenham half of the field. The result? Spurs scored with the last kick of the season, Birmingham were beaten and relegation followed.

Since then? Around 16 players have left. Marlon King signed. Virtually every valuable player we've got has been linked with someone else. And then McLeish handed in his notice by email, just as his fourth new signing of the summer was about to be confirmed. The manner of McLeish's departure has come in for some criticism, but I can't really blame him. In his four years at Birmingham, he's given us two relegations, our highest ever finish in the Premier League and our first cup win of note since the 1960s. Most of us would have taken that the day he joined. Sadly, he's also had to take very public knocks from two successive sets of owners, which he's dealt with, displaying a dignity that his employers could well learn something from. In what other profession can a boss publicly criticise an individual member of staff and there not be repercussions.
 
I'm not rose-tinted about the McLeish era of football at Birmingham. The over-reliance on 4-5-1 and some of the dourest football I've ever witnessed are hardly highlights. The odd goal would have been nice too. But then this is a results business and Birmingham have surrendered a manager that got them, more often than not, and also picked up bargain after bargain in the transfer market. The message-board managers, some of whom were calling for McLeish's head within months of him starting, may just have to be careful what they wish for now.
 
McLeish, whether Birmingham fans liked him or not, at the very least deserves respect and a warm welcome back anytime he goes near St Andrew's. Granted, if rumours prove true that he's ending up at Villa Park then his welcome will prove short-lived (although the current, plausible suggestion around Brum is that board problems were to blame for his exit, with the possible sale of Roger Johnson the catalyst). But what is fair to expect from a manager of a club that's not in the top-ten tier of English football? Less than McLeish delivered, I'd argue.

It's depressing how quickly it's all unravelled. When Stephen Carr lifted the Carling Cup just four months ago, the dream was of Craig Gardner sailing in a 30-yarder or two against some of the best Europe has to offer. Now? We'll be lucky if Gardner stays and it's comfortably the best plan to get knocked out of the Europa League quickly.
 
Instead, what has to happen at Birmingham now is what hasn't happened there for the best part of two decades. Because now, surely, is the time to get a strong successor in (Martin O'Neill would insert the requisite feline amongst the pigeons) and for the people who run the club to, bluntly, shut up. Silent owners, a supportive structure and a brave new start, and that has to be just the start of it. If that happens, Hunt, in the long run, might just have done us a favour. But I suspect, either way, we'll miss Alex McLeish a lot more than many people give him credit for. Simon Brew

Comments (9)
Comment by Blue Michael 2011-06-15 11:27:39

Some fair points, but Alex McLeish also let Palacios go, and kept Mauro Zarate on the sub's bench. Gus Poyet would do nicely as the new manager by the way, but it won't happen.

Comment by donedmundo 2011-06-15 12:09:54

I'm a Villa fan but have many Bluenose friends. Without exception they detested McCleish. Several refused to renew their season tickets at the start of last season. His win ratio of less than 37% (including one season in the championship) was less than impressive. Boring defensive football is just about acceptable when results follow. When they end in relegation I do not see how he can be regarded as successful. God forbid he ends up at Villa Park.

Comment by jameswba 2011-06-15 13:11:14

The first paragraph sums up exactly why, even as a WBA fan, I've always had an irrational affection for Birmingham. If one goal on another ground hadn't been scored on the final day to send them down, it would have been their best ever season ; you just can't help liking a club like that.

McLeish has had an eventful time there as manager and I wouldn't presume to judge it, other than to say he shouldn't be blamed for relegation in 2007/2008.

I'd put a word in for Di Matteo as a good manager to lift them out of the Championship but O'Neill at St Andrews and McLeish at Villa would be just fantastic to observe from afar. Surely not going to happen, though...

Comment by Coral 2011-06-15 17:54:48

Was a decent manager for Motherwell, got them to a high position. Went to Hibs where had a bit of cash and did very well with not a lot. Produced some good talents and got them to one of their highest finishes. Then went to Rangers, did well. Funds started drying up and did well on the budget but started getting problems and got bombed out.

From these other clubs I can see that he is a decent manager when not faced by too many off the field problems. Sadly he appears to be judged as a manager based purely on his record with Birmingham. I don't think he has done any worse than any recent manager and when faced with some difficult board rooms.

His football might have been dour with Birmingham, but he tried to buy people like N'Zogbia only to have his requests refused. And when any manager is faced with limited resources they go back to creating a well disciplined side that doesn't give away goals. So you can argue he was a bad manager, or one who just made the most of his resources.

Comment by ian.64 2011-06-17 08:06:57

"His football might have been dour with Birmingham, but he tried to buy people like N'Zogbia only to have his requests refused. And when any manager is faced with limited resources they go back to creating a well disciplined side that doesn't give away goals. So you can argue he was a bad manager, or one who just made the most of his resources."

Possibly so, but, unless I'm wrong, he had a budget larger than fellow West Midland Premiership sides, Wolves and West Brom, and yet in his first season, Joe Hart was relied upon to save many a game that his fellow teammates couldn't. And as for buying flair players, I think that it's for a manager to install a character that incorporates flair and then buy the players (within reasonable price, obviously) to complement and enhance that style. Buying flair players sounds like Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough, who's penchant for purchasing style rather than creating a template of passing football was found out when egos and poor management combined to put him out of a job.

Funny also, that the problems and obstacles that supposedly beset McLeish during last season's league campaign didn't seem to hinder his team who played well above themselves (and put out some notable outfits, to say the least) to win the Carling Cup. Finances, boardroom shenanigans and the like were absent from view while that happened. A useful stat from last season is, if I'm right, that Birmingham won more cup games than league games.

And on the final game at White Hart Lane that saw them relegated, it was reportedly the fans that let McLeish know that the odds were stacking up against them as the afternoon wore on - while McLeish, leaving Kevin Phillips at home, still opted to play one man up front.

McLeish is an okay guy and if he gets the Villa job good luck to him, but Birmingham aren't a small non-league outfit and he did get backing from them, financially or otherwise, and it was up to him to make the most of it. The need to justify his dour way of football has the whiff of BS about it - he wasn't constrained enough to not try an adventurous (possibly relegation-saving) approach that might have come close to flair.

Comment by Coral 2011-06-17 10:11:27

Interesting points, although you may wish to refer as my points as BS, Stoke have taken a similar approach. Further to that, neither Roy or Mick have been publicly slated.

Comment by ian.64 2011-06-17 11:05:33

Probably because Stoke, West Brom and Wolves have compensated for their limitations by displaying a certain energy, vigour, spirit and sense of 'plan B' that helped them gain more points as a bonus. With Birmingham City under McLeish - even under his limitations - a refusal to display flexibility in terms of attack or adventure that might have helped them survive was spurned.

By the way, this BS is coming from quite a few corners of the internet and radio phone-in world.

Comment by jameswba 2011-06-17 12:18:16

Yes, WBA, Wolves and Stoke quite clearly had something more than Birmingham when it really mattered. I have the sense that Blues pretty much sleepwalked to relegation. It's interesting to re-read the WSC 'Match of the Month' from the last issue where the feeling clearly was that, in holding on for a point with 10 men against Wolves, Blues had done enough. Problem was they believed it themselves. They then couldn't rouse themselves sufficiently to pick up points against Fulham and after that it was obvious they were in deep trouble.

Villa's appointment of McLeish, I can't help feeling, is doomed to failure. It always is when someone the fans are dead against is chosen, as WBA found out 20 years ago when they installed Barmy Bobby in the hot-seat, or as Bolton discovered with Gary Megson. That's not to say you should always go for the fans' No.1 choice. Someone whose name arouses only apathy can work out rather well - Megson at Albion is a good example of that. But defying protests and going for the guy who's just taken your bitter rivals down can only end in failure and recrimination all round. Guess Villa fans now wish they could go back a week to when McLaren was being discussed.

Comment by bluearmyfaction 2011-06-17 21:23:19

McLeish was only hard done by for being at a club without the spending power of a Bolton, let alone a Chelsea. The only club with a lower wage bill according to the most recent Deloittes report was Wolves and there were no other clubs who had had more financial doping (in terms of debts and monies put in by owners). Unfortunately the correlation between wages and league position is stronger even than the correlation between goals and points - only one club had more than 3 places difference between its ranking in wages and its ranking in the table (West Ham). It's one of the problems with being a club with working class support in a recession-destroyed city and with no wider following.

Even so, Pavlyuchenko, Dembele and N'Zogbia should all have joined us but when we had matched their terms they all moved the goalposts. And instead of giving way we stuck to the agreed terms. Any one of those would have kept us up, surely. Unfortunately you don't get points for morality.

And then we come to McLeish. The man who was undermined by the board who said, er, we'd like promotion. The board who stuck with him despite two relegations. The board who received an email from McLeish - not even a phone call - when the chairman was in the Netherlands signing off on a deal for a player McLeish wanted. Undermining a man who was on holiday and suddenly received a flying (literally) visit from a chairman whose club had said they wouldn't speak to Mark Hughes out of respect for Fulham and made a big show of being moral over Martinez. All a smokescreen for their real intent - cutting the legs from under their rivals.

And McLeish, who is now going to be paid over twice what he would have been at Blues, is all too happy to go along with that.

That's the Premiership morality for you. It's detestable. And being in the Premiership is no fun. Dull tactics against dull opposition and the hope of staying up. It's Camusian in its absurdity. All we can do is tread water...

Related articles

There To Be Shot At by Tony Coton
De Coubertin Books, £20Reviewed by Chris Stride From WSC 377, July/August 2018Buy the book Throughout this lively autobiography, former...
Garry Monk inherits unwieldy squad and undercurrent of despair at Birmingham
Embed from Getty Images // Lowest scorers in the Football League, five managers in 16 months and over £33 million of debt – Monk has...